Working it out

Some weeks ago, there was a nice column by Sean Kirst in the Post-Standard about the lessons learned (and apparently forgotten) from the Great Depression. My grandmother (on my mother’s side) was in her early 20’s then.


Recently, I just happened to notice an old tablecloth that she made that’s been in the family ever since I can remember (it’s now on a table in my living room). I’m told she made it some years before she got married in 1941. It’s done in filet crochet, a style that used to be fashionable in the ’20s and ’30s. Rectangular, three feet by four. I look at it now and cannot believe the time and concentration it must have taken to complete: she used the finest gauge of thread, and you can barely see the individual loops that make up each thread of the netting. All by hand — no machines.

How long did it take? I can’t ask her now, because she passed away almost 15 years ago.

In talking of public works during the Depression, we point to all kinds of WPA projects that put people back to work — such as the fantastic stonework at New York’s state parks. But then there were the private works, that no one remembers now, unless they happen to notice the results. As an embroiderer myself, I know you go into a sort of alpha state when you are working on something. It is a great way to free one’s thoughts. I think about my grandmother and what she and her working-class family must have been going through during uncertain times, perhaps a lack of jobs or lost opportunities and a lot of time with nothing to do but worry… or work privately on something.

I don’t remember many Depression stories from her, but I know that after it and the war were over, she got a job at GE, entered the middle-class workspace, and scrimped and saved to buy a new house in Fairmount Hills — it was really her dream, not my grandfather’s — a house which is still in the family, as is the tablecloth she worked on so patiently.

I know what she was working on, but what was she thinking? I can’t ask her now.

2 thoughts on “Working it out

  1. sean

    ellen – many of those folks are still out there. i have been blown away in the last few weeks by the long, passionate, handwritten, autobiographical submissions involving suffering, endurance and humor for the elmwood and south geddes street blogs, which makes me realize how i need to move quickly to do the same thing for so many neighborhoods in our metro area – because there are so many voices that may be waiting to be heard.

    your account makes me recall the story of adelaide robineau, sitting in her window, touching a delicate tool (didn’t she use a knitting needle?) hundreds of thousands of times – if not millions of times – to bring her pottery to her precise vision. it makes me think of the way folks shaped in the early part of the last century would paint a room or strip a piece of furniture: relentlessly, patiently, stubbornly … undaunted.

    getting them to talk, though, is not always an easy task. part of that is sorrow, i think, and reopening those doors. part of it is their tenacity, and sometimes their humor at what they see as unduly sentimental: when we tried to get my mother to do an oral history, she replied, ‘what? you think i’m about to croak?’


  2. Ellen

    Maybe there is a real need in the area for a group called “Sixty Above.” With neighborhood chapters.

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